What California could learn from Australia about how to deal with drought

Drought liquidity no swimming sign

California is facing one of the worst droughts on record. While state lawmakers struggle to come up with long-term solutions to the water shortage, some experts contend that one country is already a perfect model for California to follow: Australia.

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced the state’s first mandatory water restrictions, requiring individuals and businesses to slightly scale back usage.

But the small measures will likely not be enough to quench the state’s thirst. California uses about 38 billion gallons of water per day, and has proved that it’s terrible at meeting water goals. The state announced earlier this month that it had again failed to meet its voluntary water restriction goals.

Luckily for Californians, there’s a model across the Pacific that may have some of the answers to the Golden State’s water shortage.

Long before California’s current drought crisis, Australia faced its own crippling drought. The “millennium drought,” which lasted from 1995 to 2009, threatened to devastate the Australian economy and significantly alter the country’s way of life.

But through a series of radical reforms, Australia managed to stave off a devastating crisis. Over the course of the 15-year drought, Australia dramatically altered its infrastructure to conserve water.

The country spent billions repurposing its infrastructure to conserve and store water. According to the Energy Collective, Australia repaired reservoirs to prevent water from evaporating and leaking, and used watering data to monitor soil to see where water could be cut back. Australia implemented water reuse programs, with cities like Melbourne creating facilities that recycled runoff and wastewater.

California is encouraging people to cut back on lawn watering.
In this file photo from Thursday, July 17, 2014, Michael Korte walks on his brown lawn at his home in Glendora, Calif. Most Californians have heard by now that they should stop watering their lawns to save water in the drought. But there are smaller steps to take, too, from taking shorter showers and doing less laundry to restaurants skipping water at tables. Damian Dovarganes

The country also enacted and enforced stricter water use standards. After lawmakers banned personal lawn-watering, regulators used satellite images to identify rule breakers and implement fines. As Bloomberg notes, regulators kept close tabs on agricultural usage, punishing farms that overused.

The country worked to change the culture of water usage, even implementing some mild shaming to encourage individuals to conserve. The government published reports about the daily amount of water used by each person to help Australians realise their individual impact. As a result, usage dropped 40% per person per day, reports the Guardian.

There are some differences that would make certain Australian reforms difficult to implement in California. Bloomberg notes that Australia’s laissez-faire separation of water and land rights required municipalities and some businesses to trade water on a cap-and-trade-style market. This allowed people to buy and sell shares of their water allotment, preventing locales that sit closer to a water source from pumping rivers and wells dry without consequence.

Workers load a spa into the back of a truck.
Spa Removers’ owner Lando Ferrenback, right, and worker, Juan Alexander remove a spa at a residence in which the owner considered it ‘a waste of water,’ in Garden Grove, Calif., on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. California water regulators have imposed unprecedented mandatory water cutbacks, but now comes the tough part: coaxing reluctant residents to let their lawns immediately die and start taking three-minute showers. In wealthy Orange County suburbs where water use remains high, officials want residents to act with the same urgency as those in rural Central Valley towns, where residents are showering at a community center. After cutting off water to farms, the next frontier to address the drought is getting urban dwellers to turn off the sprinklers. Damian Dovarganes

California lawmakers are already looking to that model for answers. In 2014, the state sent a delegation of state water regulators to cherry-pick solutions that could be implemented in the state.

But California still has a long way to go. Though the governor’s recent executive orders put in place America’s first mandatory water conservation rules, the state still hasn’t begun the process of enacting any long-term solutions. The state still doesn’t collect much data outside of city-wide usage, and enforcement of water overuse is virtually nonexistent.